Being cooked for is a great and startling pleasure for those of us who are used to being the ones who cook for others.
For my 50th birthday last week, Brendan and I drove up to Montreal with Dingo for 3 nights of walking, eating, and trying to speak French. On our way north, we stopped in Woodstock, Vermont. My older half-sister Caddie had cooked me a birthday lunch with her husband, Vin, and their 22-year-old daughter, Thea. They had made a rich pureed carrot soup with yogurt and toasted pine nuts, a delectable salad with oil-packed Italian tuna and niçoise olives, and a gluten-free ice cream cake. Thea helped me blow out the candles, and then I opened my present and cards. They had never met Brendan before; this was their first chance to check him out.
The five of us sat around the table on their screened treehouse-like porch and feasted and talked while Dingo lay at my feet. We stayed an hour longer than we were supposed to, and didn’t want to say goodbye. As I hugged Caddie, she gestured to Brendan and whispered, “Great guy!”
Months before, back when we were comparatively flush, Brendan had rented a bright apartment with a terrace on Avenue Laval, on the Plateau, that took dogs. Dingo had a loopy grin on his face the whole time we were there. He climbed the Mont-Royal twice off-leash on wooded paths, cadged cucumber, shrimp, red pepper, smoked salmon, and artichoke hearts during our picnics in the grass, and sniffed, if we let him, every single thing on the streets with an almost narcotic pleasure. When we went out for dinner every night, he subsided without complaint into his bed and greeted us with sleepy mildness instead of his usual sharply accusing barks when we got home, hours later.
On my birthday, Brendan took me to Marché 27, where we sat for more than four hours, maybe even five, eating dark briny seductive little Malpeques oysters, a brilliant salmon tartare with chipotle and mango, fresh beautiful salads, and a lot of Sancerre… the meal cost a fortune, but he’d set money aside months ago for my birthday. I toasted his thoughtfulness several times during the meal.
“What,” he said each time, “I’m not going to spoil you on your birthday? Of course I am!”
On our way home to Maine, we stopped in New Hampshire for dinner with Brendan’s mother, Kathy: lobsters, ears of corn, green beans, and tomato cucumber salad. We sat at a table outside in the clear, bugless evening and feasted yet again. The soft-shell lobsters were tender and so buttery they needed no butter. The corn was so sweet and fresh, it needed no butter either. Still, we availed ourselves of the melted butter, because it was there. Then I opened the present she’d bought me, a casserole tureen with a lid, made by a local potter: exactly the thing I needed. After dinner we lingered, still talking, until it was time to pull ourselves away and drive the hour and 15 minutes home.
When we landed at the Phoenix airport the other evening, Brendan stayed behind at the gates to change planes and fly on to LA for the night. My mother was waiting for me at the arrivals area just outside the passenger exit.
“This airport,” she said, after we’d exchanged our hugs and happy greetings and were waiting for the elevator to the parking garage, “is the worst. The signs are terrible! I asked two different people for directions, a janitor and a cop, and they both ignored me. They pretended they didn’t hear me! I actually said ‘Fuck you’ to the cop.”
“You did?” I laughed. “That is exactly the kind of thing I would do.”
My mother, who turned 76 and had carotid-artery surgery only a month ago, looked shockingly beautiful and strong and youthful. I couldn’t stop looking at her, telling her with joy and relief how good she looked. Brendan and I had booked our tickets to Arizona right after her surgery, when she was being kept in the ICU with dangerously low blood pressure. We were very worried about her then, but she’d commanded us to come later on, when she was recovered and could enjoy us. Well, she had certainly recovered.
We came out of the air-conditioned chill into the hot, dry air I remember so well from my childhood. We got into her Prius. I was very hungry. She had told me she’d bring something “light and cool” for the two-hour drive down to Oracle, so I hadn’t eaten much on the plane. She handed me a shallow, flat-bottomed straw basket full of covered dishes.
“Wait,” she said, “I have to put it all together.”
In one container was a cold cucumber soup, which she had made and frozen and let thaw on the drive up to Phoenix so it was perfectly chilled. She added a fresh salad of cut-up cherry tomatoes and stirred.
In the other container were dips to go with spicy blue corn chips: an olive and dried tomato tapenade, a pistachio, pea, and parsley dip, a white bean and sun-dried tomato paté, and a roasted red pepper spread.
I fell on this elegant, savory portable supper with joy. The soup was cold and thick, sweet with the tomatoes, and the dips were dense and rich with the crunchy spicy chips. The dinner was delicious and satisfying in itself, but it was made even more so by the fact that she’d made it just for me, had packed it so beautifully, and planned for it to be just the right temperature when I ate it.
We drove through the flat, hot, scattered-neon night with the air conditioning on, and I ate the cold food and we talked and talked. We somehow wound up going through Casa Grande and Coolidge, an unintentional scenic detour that landed us on a dirt road at one point, but we didn’t lose heart: we stopped and asked for directions, my mother hopping out of the car at a Circle K, a gas station, and yet another gas station. No one she talked to was a native English speaker: there was a sleepy Pakistani woman in the bullet-proof gas station booth, a scary-looking Mexican dude in the convenience store, and a second Mexican guy at the next gas station. No one had any idea where the town of Florence was, or the highway we needed to be on. No one had a map. No one was able to be the least bit informative, and their English was halting, but, unlike the cop and the janitor at the airport, they were all friendly, cheerful, and eager to give whatever advice they could, even if it was only to tell us to ask at the next gas station.
Finally, after burbling chattily through the night, we made it to Oracle, to my mother’s sprawling, cool, airy house on a rise with views of mountains all around. We sat at her table drinking red wine with ice for a few hours, talking and laughing until we dropped with sleepiness, and then the next morning we got up and kept talking until it was time to pick Brendan up at the Tucson airport. This time, we did not get lost.